Skin treatments are not one size fits all. We spoke to Dr. Jason Emer about successful treatments for people with darker complexions and why our skin tone affects the outcome of certain procedures.
Skin procedures are more than just surface level. Results depend on a variety of factors that extend far beyond skin type and one of those factors we don't often think about is our skin's color. During my first laser hair removal consultation, I was told I’d require additional treatments over a longer period of time due to my darker complexion. I was new to the world of cosmetic procedures and this was the first time I'd heard that my skin color could affect the outcome of my treatment. It turns out that our complexions play a significant role in the outcome of certain procedures, especially lasers.
The issue with lasers and some other technologies in treating different skin colors, and the reason behind adverse outcomes on darker complexions, is the amount of energy absorbed by the skin – darker skin types absorb more energy and are thus prone to developing hyper pigmentation, irregular pigmentation, and hypo pigmentation, whereas lighter skin types don’t absorb energy and respond directly to the treatment.
For a long time the only options were a range of diode and alexandrite lasers, which still carry a risk of pigmentation changes. It’s only within the last ten years that traceless cosmetic treatments have become available for darker complexions. We now have the choice of lasers and micro-needling radio frequency devices that can be used on darker skin types, with little to no side effects.
But even with the increasing amount of available treatments, people with darker complexions still need to search out doctors who know how to accurately treat darker skin tones. Board-certified dermatologist Jason Emer MD, acknowledges some doctors don’t know how to successfully treat darker skin and aren't informed of the side effects certain cosmetic procedures have on dark skin types.
“There are a lot of doctors claiming that Erbium lasers, or what are called ‘cool lasers’, and even CO2 lasers, are safe for darker skin types," he says. "These lasers are ablative and burn the skin - they’re very high risk. All ablative lasers, anything that’s delivering a lot of inflammation in to the skin, should be avoided.”
Some doctors also use IPL hair removal, which should be avoided when treating darker skin types, since it has a chance of developing both hypo and hyper pigmentation. Another laser that is damaging, and used regularly, is Fraxel. If used incorrectly, Fraxel can be extremely dangerous and cause rebound hyper pigmentation, burns and damage the overall skin texture.
When it comes to skin rejuvenation, Dr. Emer suggests people with dark skin avoid energy-based treatments and focus on peels, skincare and at-home dermal rolling. Here are some of his favorites.
Enlighten Face Peel
A signature treatment of Dr. Emer's, Enlighten is a face peel designed to treat darker skin types for pigmentation, dark spots, and pores. It contains retinol, hydroquinone, Kojic acid, Vitamin C, and liquorice root for anti-aging, skin brightening and lightening. The peel can be done every month or two to brighten the skin tone without risk of damaging skin pigment, unlike other chemical peels.
Micro Needling Radio Frequency
For advanced rejuvenation treatments, there are micro needling radio frequency treatments available that work from beneath the surface and act as an alternative to energy-based treatments. Most of these devices use plated needles to penetrate the skin and deliver energy under the surface. These micro needling radio frequency treatments can be used for addressing pigmentation, acne scars and, treating fine wrinkles in darker skin types. Stronger technologies can also help tighten the skin.
Clear and Brilliant®
Clear and Brilliant® is used to treat melasma, hyperpigmentation, burns, or to rectify the results of an improper procedure. The procedure uses a very low energy laser treatment that is safe for darker skin types when used over the course of several sittings. Clear and Brilliant is Dr. Emer’s go-to treatment for Melasma and acne, and for those who have sensitive skin or don’t want a lot of downtime.
A salt facial uses sea salt to apply pressure to the skin to decrease acne, promote exfoliation and smooth pores and fine lines. It’s a non-energy/non-heat based resurfacing treatment safe for darker skin types. This three-step treatment exfoliates the outer layers of skin, deposits customised serums into the skin, and uses LED therapy to decrease inflammation. It’s an all-in-one treatment that can be done every month to maintain youthful, rejuvenated skin.
While laser hair removal seems straightforward, a darker complexion can confuse the laser into treating the skin, rather than the hair because it targets dark pigment. The YAG laser treatment is a good alternative to traditional hair removal lasers, as flashes so quickly that the upper surface of the skin does not get affected and the laser only works on the hair follicles. The YAG laser is the ideal hair removal option for dark complexions, such as African or South Asian skin tones.
Regardless of the procedure, to achieve the best results you’ll need to combine your treatment with Vitamin C and glycolic creams to reduce inflammation in the skin and promote exfoliation, further reducing any risk of pigmentation.
While there was a time where cosmetic procedures weren’t designed for darker skin types, we’ve thankfully reached a point where cosmetic treatments are accessible to all. So if you’ve ever doubted whether your darker complexion was the right type for a certain procedure, you can feel rest assured that it is now your skin’s time to shine. Just make sure to always consult with your practitioner first.